Obama's Great Deception - Tony Badran
America’s settled policy of standing by while half a million Syrians have been killed, millions have become refugees, and large swaths of their country have been reduced to rubble is not a simple “mistake,” as critics like Nicholas D. Kristof and Roger Cohen have lately claimed. Nor is it the product of any deeper-seated American impotence or of Vladimir Putin’s more recent aggressions. Rather, it is a byproduct of America’s overriding desire to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran, which was meant to allow America to permanently remove itself from a war footing with that country and to shed its old allies and entanglements in the Middle East, which might also draw us into war. By allowing Iran and its allies to kill Syrians with impunity, America could demonstrate the corresponding firmness of its resolve to let Iran protect what President Barack Obama called its “equities” in Syria, which are every bit as important to Iran as pallets of cash.
And just like it sold its Iran policy through a public “echo chamber” of paid “experts,” the White House deliberately constructed an “echo chamber” to forward its Syria policy.
America’s Syria policy can, therefore, be best understood not in the terms most familiar to Mideast analysts, such as “getting Assad to step aside” or “supporting the moderate opposition” or “paving the way to a peaceful transition and elections.” Rather, it is a strategic-communications campaign tightly run from the White House, whose purpose was and is to serve as a smokescreen for an entirely coherent and purposeful policy that comes directly from the president himself, but which he and his aides did not wish to publicly own. The goal of the president and his closest aides is to convince the Iranians that we would meet our commitments to them while confusing and obscuring the real reasons behind the president’s set decision of nonintervention in Syria.
In a recent interview, Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon revealed that in 2013, Iran told President Obama that if he were to strike the regime of Bashar Assad following the latter’s chemical-weapons attack, the Iranians would collapse the talks over their nuclear program. Obama canceled the strike, of course, and later reassured Iran that the United States would not touch Assad. Solomon’s reporting confirms a critical fact about Obama’s Iran and Syria policies: They are one and the same. Or, stated differently, Syria is part of the price for the president’s deal with Iran.
To be fair, Obama showed his cards on Syria literally from day one of the uprising against Assad. Unlike his nonnegotiable demand that longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, step down immediately—not today, but “yesterday”—Obama very visibly and deliberately refused to call for Assad’s removal from power. In the White House, this call was contemptuously dubbed the “magic words,” and the belief was that saying those words would raise expectations of an active U.S. policy to see it through.
[T]he White House laid out where it wanted to go, and where it is today: a bilateral process with the Russians, cutting out all those annoying U.S. allies pushing us to escalate and insisting on Assad’s departure.
By early 2016, [The Brookings Institution’s Jeremy] Shapiro, who had parroted the White House’s misguiding spin on the incredible stupidity of the Russians’ intervention, was now saying the Russians actually held all the cards in Syria, and the only option for the U.S. is to work with them, on their terms.
For five-and-a-half years, Obama has maintained an unwavering position against intervention on the side of Assad’s enemies in order to set the stage for a U.S. realignment in the Middle East. To shield this ambition from view, and therefore from criticism, the White House launched an elaborate spin campaign whose purpose was to deflect and manage domestic and allied criticism while the president pursued his objective. In partnership with Russia, Obama has directly shaped the course of the Syrian war while single-mindedly working to actualize his vision of a new American alliance with Russia and Iran that will allow America to take a permanent vacation from the Middle East.
While the end result of this effort may not be what Obama and his closest advisers hope, his actions are clear, and their consequences now appear to be locked in, no matter who comes after him in the White House.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies